For £30,000 a head migrants face torture - if they survive the trip

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The Independent Online

In the Chinese province of Fujian, on the Taiwan Strait, there is growing belief in a local saying that "when one person goes abroad, the whole family makes money".

In the Chinese province of Fujian, on the Taiwan Strait, there is growing belief in a local saying that "when one person goes abroad, the whole family makes money".

The apparent truth of the adage is no more obvious than among the walled patios, tiled balconies and satellite television dishes that adorn houses in the townships of Changle and Fuqing.

It is from these two communities that the Snakehead gangs, the most ruthless and efficiently organised of the Chinese people-trafficking syndicates, draw their supply of human cargo.

According to intelligence compiled by the Metropolitan Police's Chinatown Liaison Unit, the Fujianese who are smuggled into Britain follow an established overland route through Russia, the Czech Republic and Germany to the Netherlands, where they are hidden among flowers or vegetables on lorries bound for ports in south-east England.

Fujianese migrants pay between £15,000 and £30,000 each to be sent to Britain, the United States or Japan. The money is provided by their families through local money-lenders who have grown rich from the trade.

But for many who make the 6,000-mile overland journey, the dream of a comfortable life in the West is shortlived.

British detectives have investigated a series of cases in which migrants have been kidnapped by Snakeheads in Britain until their families in China make a ransom payment in addition to the trafficking fee. One hostage escaped only by jumping 20 feet from a window of a flat in Plumstead High Street, south London. He was found in a disoriented state by local police, and said he had been one of five hostages in the flat. Another man discovered by police in London had been manacled for 22 months, treated like a slave and had his finger slashed to the bone with a machete when he refused to rape a female hostage.

The immigrants that have had help in getting work often find themselves paid £150 a week for long hours in the Chinese food industry, with the bulk of their earnings sent home to the money-lenders. Most dread the prospect of being deported.

Wah-Piow Tan, a lawyer in London, has represented thousands of Fujianese asylum-seekers and said that deportees and their families would probably commit suicide in the face of insurmountable debts and fear of retribution from Snakeheads. He said: "There is no way back. It would take them 200 years to pay off their debts in China."

Mr Tan said another group of more than 10 Fujianese had recently escaped death from heat and suffocation after the immigrants cut themselves out of a canvas-covered container on the dockside at Dover. They are now claiming asylum.

The lawyer agreed with senior immigration officials that, in spite of new measures introduced by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to inhibit the trafficking of people on lorries, the numbers of Chinese immigrants were increasing.

In April, five Chinese immigrants climbed out of an articulated lorry as it pulled away from traffic lights in St Leonards, East Sussex. One woman with them fell into the path of a car and was killed.

British people have been tempted to take part in the lucrative trade. Last month, Susan Glendinning, the daughter of a clergyman, was jailed for trying to smuggle 24 Chinese people into Britain.

Ms Glendinning and her friend Richard Brackstone, both from Southampton, were stopped by customs officers at the French port of Cherbourg as they prepared to take their lorry on board a ferry bound for Poole, Dorset.

China is now rivalled only by Sri Lanka as the most common source of asylum-seekers arriving in Britain. Nearly 500 Chinese people are claiming asylum here every month.

Lyndall Sachs, the United Nations' London spokeswoman on refugee issues, said China had a "dreadful" human rights record, which included the persecution of Christians and the arbitrary detention of political opponents.

Senior immigration officials are concerned that although 95 per cent of asylum claims from mainland China are rejected, very few people return because they have deliberately destroyed their identification documents, without which the Chinese government will not accept them.

Thousands more Fujianese are believed to have arrived in Britain undetected by the authorities. The National Criminal Intelligence Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate Investigation Service, which monitor illegal immigration, believe that between seven and ten syndicates control the people-trafficking trade in China.

Four men from one Snakehead gang, who were jailed for between seven and 14 years by the Old Bailey last October, were known to have been responsible for smuggling at least 500 people into the country although only five were traced.

The smugglers were all living in an affluent suburb of north London. As the Snakehead gangs have grown wealthier, they have used more sophisticated methods. Once they packed the migrants on to small fishing vessels and simply left them to drift on to foreign beaches. Now they seal people into canvas-topped steel containers, which are sometimes fitted with portable lavatories and battery-powered lights. When the bodies of three Fujianese stowaways were found among rotting vegetables in freight that was shipped to Seattle in January, the United States authorities described the use of containers as a "new and worrying trend". A further 85 Chinese people were found alive in six other containers on the American Pacific coast in the same week, part of the estimated 5,000 attempting illegal entry to the United States in the past year.

But despite these horror stories, the Fujianese exodus is unlikely to dissipate. After a recent visit to the province on a fact-finding mission, Mr Tan, the London lawyer, said: "It [people-trafficking] has generated a lot of wealth. You see a lot of three and four-storey buildings. It's all the earnings from the children working in the States, Japan and the UK."